Don’t make towers (sub)urban deserts

The urban highrise building, the stereotype of an intensifying city: not quite tall enough to require incredible engineering feats or architectural inspiration, yet still trying to cram in as many residents as possible.

There is nothing wrong with the urban highrise, they provide much needed living space on as little land as possible. After all, land is scarce in any proper town or city.

In theory, an urban highrise should be great for the street. While tall and imposing, they provide many residents or workers to give life to the surrounding spaces. Yet modern urban high rises do no such thing. Instead they manage to create a dead area, even more bleak than a modern suburban street.

Take a look at these two pictures of suburban highrises in Toronto, provided by photographer Jesse Colin Jackson.

Both are surrounded by dead area, in this case greenspace. Maybe an opportunistic developer might call these “parks” but they’re nothing of the such, just empty space.

Bucheon, South Korea (Google Maps)

Have a look at this development in South Korea – this isn’t a uniquely North American problem at all. Here as well as the passive greenspace, developers have used the space for car parking. Note the word “passive” – passive greenspace is just space that happens to have trees – look around, you will notice a lot of it in modern cities. Not a park, not somewhere you would really want to go.

These spaces have a pretty poor influence on the urban landscape. The wide open spaces might look nice, but they are not very friendly. From the Toronto images we see developers have provided a small court and greenspace. Both look more like places you would buy an illegal substance or get stabbed sooner than you would play a ball game or go for a picnic.

Simple problem really: there is too much empty space to go around. Most urbanites are probably aware that city parks aren’t the best place to be after dark. Once the general public is gone these wide, empty spaces (complete with some shelter and minimal visibility) attract delinquents, those without homes to sleep in and all sorts of petty criminals. The same goes for a unpopular park – even in the day time.

What is more, because the spaces are underutilized they can all too easily go neglected. The suburban lawn works because a single household is given responsibility for it, the public lawn works only if enough people care for it.

Now, there is a reason developers like these spaces. They provide value to the buildings, as the buildings get closer together you get less sunlight and more of your view is occupied by someone else’s home.

But it’s not an impossible task to fix, many skyscrapers utilize a pedestal. A wider section around the base of the tower that serves as a street frontage, allowing narrower streets while maintaining sunlight and view corridors. Have a look at this neighbourhood just a stone throws south of the earlier tower park in Bucheon.

Notice how many businesses are posted on Google Maps (which actually lacks a lot of data in South Korea due to archaic mapping laws). This is a proper urban area. It supports lots of businesses (I imagine there’s many more unmapped restaurants, not to mention offices, workshops, etc) and thus has a more vibrant atmosphere.

An area like this might even have been demolished to make room for the larger, more efficient tower park it neighbours. Let’s fix this.

It’s simple, put the towers on a pedestal in the middle of urban fabric such as this. The pedestal and floors it envelopes can be rented out as larger apartments, or more likely business and commercial spaces that not only tolerate but enjoy proximity to the busy street.

Squeeze in some proper Parks – ones that are scarce enough to be busy and well appreciated. Active ones that facilitate impromptu sports games, picnics and a nice stroll after work.


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